Who art thou, William? 4 Shakespearean mysteries unsolved after 450 years

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  • Tuesday, 22 Apr 2014

Definitely not the definitive portrait of William Shakespeare: On the 450th anniversary of his birth, we're still no closer to uncovering the most enigmatic of Shakespearean characters, Shakespeare himself.

Go, Shakespeare, it's your birthday! For a man who would've been 450 years old today, it’s shocking how little we know of the Bard from Stratford-upon-Avon.

Every year, Shakespeare’s literary legacy is performed and adapted, discussed and criticised, celebrated and satirised, published and republished all over the globe. Case in point: The World Shakespeare Bibliography, which has maintained a global database of various stuff written about or inspired by the playwright since 1960, boasts a list that currently tallies at 136,494 entries – far more than the 38 plays and 154 poems attributed to him.

One thing’s for sure: 450 years after his birth, Shakespeare is more alive than ever.

But mystery shrouds the life of the Bard. Peculiarly, for such a prolific wordsmith, he left no diaries or letters or other personal documents – save for a will and chicken-scrawl signatures on tax forms. His paper trail was so scant that some historians have questioned whether Shakespeare existed at all.

Where there’s a vacuum of information, there will be speculation. In Shakespeare’s case, whole careers, libraries and institutions have been built on attempts to figure out who this enigmatic Englishman was. We take a look at some of the most perplexing things we think we know – but ultimately don’t really know – about good ol’ Shakey.

Go, Shakespeare, We Gonna Party Like It's Your Birthday

April 23, 1564, is the official date of Shakespeare’s birth. But there’s no actual documented proof of this, which is normal since birth records were inconsistent for common folk at the time.

The date comes from an assumption based on the date of his baptism, April 26 – in the bard’s time, the ritual was commonly done three days after birth, but it wasn’t compulsory. Some have suggested that April 23 was conveniently chosen because it’s the feast day of St George, the patron saint of England.

But even if April 23 is correct, it’s a date that was recorded during a time when the Julian calendar was still in use in England, which the country phased out in 1752. After time-correction for the modern-day Gregorian calendar, Shakespeare’s birthday would’ve fallen on May 3.

What we do know for sure is the date of Shakespeare’s death, which also falls on April 23, in 1616 – coincidentally, on his 52nd birthday. After time-correction though, it would also fall on May 3.

Alas, this is not so much of a mystery as a possible oversight. But should we really be celebrating his birthday today?

If you're footing the bill, then we don't really see an issue with the date.

He Had Style, He Had Grace, William Shakespeare Gave Good Face

In 16th century England, you could only take a selfie if you were handy at painting or coffered enough to pay someone who was. But Shake-it-don’t-spear-it was no ordinary commoner.

This explains, to a certain extent, why the National Portrait Gallery was inundated by more than 60 portraits claimed to be of Shakespeare when the gallery opened in the 19th century. The claimants were also trying to pinch the gallery for a quick penny.

Of the many alleged portraits, only two have been accepted as definitive: the Martin Droeshout engraving published in First Folio in 1623 and a grim-looking bust at the Holy Trinity Church in his hometown installed in 1622. There’s a problem though with these two depictions: they were created posthumously.

Of those supposedly made when he was alive, the Chandos portrait – believed to have been painted by the playwright’s “intimate friend” John Taylor in 1610 – is the most widely accepted as the real deal.

The Chandos portrait, believed to have been painted when Shakespeare was alive, is most widely believed to be a true depiction of the playwright's visage. Its name came from its previous ownership by the Duke of Chandos.

But the Chandos portrait raises more questions than it can possibly answer.

It shows a balding, bearded man with a ring in his left ear, and rather non-Anglo features: qualities that have led to claims that Shakespeare had Jewish or Arab ancestry. Upon seeing it, Sigmund Freud became convinced the bard was French and that ‘Shakespeare’ was actually an English mispronunciation of ‘Jacques Pierre’.

There was also this peculiar project, guided by the empirical hands of logic no less, of scientists using an alleged death mask of Shakespeare to create a 3D replica of him. Selfie overkill?

Was Shakespeare black? We'll never know for sure. This photo came from this hilarious article.

Straight, Gay, Bisexual? Who Knows!

We know that Shakespeare had a wife, whom he married on November 27, 1582 (if time-corrected, that would be December 7), when he was 18 and she was 26. Her name was Anne Hathaway (same name, different girls) and they had three children together – Susanna, Hamnet and Judith.

After three years, Shakespeare upped and moved to London, where he stayed for much of his life, apparently returning to Stratford for a brief time most years until 1613 when he apparently retired and moved back, dying three years later. Hathaway passed away in 1623, outliving her husband by seven years, and insisted on being buried next to his grave.

Not much else is known about their life together, except that Hathaway was in early pregnancy when the two were married, which has led some to believe theirs was a shotgun wedding and that he grew to resent her and the domestic responsibilities and rural dreariness she represented, which explained his move to London.

And what of Shakespeare’s 28 years as a ‘player’ in London? Again, not much is known. But curious scholars are a resourceful bunch – where others see smoke, they see fire. Over the centuries, they’ve dissected his celebrated sonnets like lab frogs and managed to extract precious glibs and globs of unverified information – well-researched gossip, basically.

Sex-peare? Joseph Fiennes played Shakespeare as a young, hot-blooded 'player' in Shakespeare in Love, but was he really in real life?

There is the curious case of the ‘Dark Lady’, a supposedly married woman to whom many of his sonnets are addressed. Sonnet 151, in particular, makes explicit mention of a “gentle cheater” for whose “dear love I rise and fall” (in direct reference to his tumescence, no less).

Did Shakespeare really leave his wife to chase after another’s? Was he the original heartbreaker of London? We have no idea. And despite the shocking revelation of Sonnet 151, it’s no Lindsay Lohan list.

Like any celebrity worth his salt, Shaken-and-speared had his fair share of gay rumours. Where’s the proof? Again, it’s the sonnets. Many scholars have expressed their curiosity over the fact that Sonnets 1 to 126 are addressed to a young unnamed person known only as ‘Fair Youth’ that most agree is more male than female.

In Sonnet 20, tellingly, the poet laments that the object of his affection is better than a woman in all respects but is sadly not a woman. In Sonnet 52, there’s lascivious talk of the “fine point of seldom pleasure” addressed at a young man. Meanwhile, Sonnet 126 launches straight into “O my lovely boy…” praising his squire’s beauty before warning him to be wary of the ravages of time. Who was this man? A cosmetologist?

To add more intrigue, the sonnets were addressed to a certain ‘Mr W.H.’. Some gossip say it was either Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton or William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, both his patrons and both rumoured to have been quite handsome in their youth.

Still, others argued that the sonnets were written during a time when the level of affection among bros was more freely expressed, with a lot more candour and poetic ardour that would've made the bros of today puke in haste. So what are we to think? Was he into shrews or was he into lads? If we must look at Shakespeare’s writings for answers, then perhaps this quote from Romeo and Juliet would suffice:

“Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs;

Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes;

Being vex’d a sea nourish’d with lovers’ tears:

What is it else? A madness most discreet,

A choking gall and a preserving sweet.”

The Cobbe portrait of Shakespeare, one of a few portraits accepted as almost-there-but-not-quite-authentic, allegedly portrays young William with rosy cheeks, pink lips, and hipster beard – quite the catch.

Author! Author!

Ninety percent of the plays written during Shakespeare’s time is lost, mostly down to the simple fact that theatre companies simply didn’t publish them for fear of plagiarism.

The only reason we have the Bard’s work today is due to the efforts of John Heminges and Henry Condell, who compiled and published the manuscript known as First Folio in 1623, the first definitive collection of Shakespeare’s plays to come out in print.

The inside cover page of the manuscript that has come to be known as First Folio, featuring an engraving by Martin Droeshout, originally published in 1623.

His early reputation was a mixed bag, however. Among the public, his plays enjoyed lukewarm receptions, and among scholars he was a guilty pleasure despite his plays not fitting in with classical conventions. But slowly the temperament of the ages turned and by the end of the 18th century, Shakespeare was hotcake.

In the 19th century, there was so much Hot-shake in the air it began to get stuffy for some. It was then that the doubting started. Speculations about Shakespeare’s authorship were seeded in 1845, during the height of what playwright George Bernard Shaw called ‘bardolatry’ (incessant Shakey worship), when Delia Bacon – an American émigré writer – theorised that ‘Shakespeare’ was a pseudonym.

Later, she expanded her theory by claiming that Francis Bacon (no relation), an influential statesman and scientist, led a group of well-educated and high-minded intellectuals who wrote the plays, but had to assume a pseudonym as theatre was perceived at the time as a disreputable art form.

Bacon’s claim ignited an intellectual war. Over the next centuries, volleys were exchanged between the ‘Stratfordian’ camp – who believed that the William who was born and buried in Stratford-upon-Avon was the man who held the quill of literary greatness – and the ‘Anti-Stratfordian’ – who claimed otherwise.

At the core of the Anti-Stratfordian beef was their belief that the author of Shakespeare’s plays required a ‘proper’ (meaning ‘expensive’) education, and for them to reconcile that with the fact he had come from Stratford-upon-Avon, a backwater village more known for its slaughterhouses and tanneries, was simply unacceptable.

At last count, 84 possible candidates have been nominated by various Anti-Stratfordians over the years as the ‘real’ Shakespeare. From this ridiculous list, four – Francis Bacon, Edward de VereChristopher Marlowe and William Stanley – had the most voracious supporters and least unconvincing back-stories.

The Edward de Vere theory, put forth by J. Thomas Looney in 1920, even got a 2011 feature film treatment called Anonymous, in which a convoluted plot sees de Vere striking a deal with his secret lover Queen Elizabeth to allow a smug actor called William Shakespeare assume authorship of his plays so he could save their love child.

Sadly, for the Anti-Stratfordians, the film flopped.

In a way, the Stratfordians won out, mainly because their foes simply lacked hard evidence. But it’s not as though the Stratfordians could prove their case convincingly either. Apart from a few scrappy documents and anecdotes that are only slightly more credible, they also lacked 100% proof.

Ultimately, it was Shakespeare who won because of Shakespeare – how could you possibly attribute his plays – whoever he may have been – to anyone else?

Some wise parting words, from Hamlet:

“This above all:

To thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Happy 450th birthday, William. Many happy returns!

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